Fear—Breaking It Down
I used for many years because of fear. It ran my life like a drill sergeant at boot camp. I did what it told me to do, and I did it for so long that it became my nature. Generally, it told me to run. “Run away from what scares you” is what fear whispered into my ear. Since running was what I did most, I became really good at it. They say that fight or flight are the two main responses to fear. I chose flight so often that I’m surprised I didn’t turn into an airplane. Flight became my only mode of dealing with fear. The more I ran, the stronger my fear grew, and often because of the simplest of things. Soon I became afraid of more and more things. Eventually I was living in a state of near-constant paranoia; I was running from everything in my life, and I didn’t deal with much of anything.
For years I had so many fears running my life that I didn’t know which way to turn, so I turned to alcohol and drugs to help me not to feel the fear. It worked for a while. In fact, it worked right up until it quit working; but by that time, it was too late. My friends (alcohol and drugs) had not only abandoned me, but had turned on me. When I reached this point, I was not only full of fear, but I couldn’t stop drinking and drugging, either. While I choose not to blame fear for my drinking and drugging, I have discovered that the fear was there long before I began abusing alcohol and drugs.
One of my biggest fears during my younger years was women. The more attractive they were, the more I wanted them, and the more fear I felt. It began so long ago, I could actually say it was a fear of girls. Two instances come to mind of my ability to deal or to not deal with my fear of girls while I was in high school.
When I was fourteen, I fell madly in love with my best friend’s sister. She was about three years older than I was and she graduated during my freshman year. I never saw her at school because we were on split shifts—the juniors and seniors went to school in the morning and the freshmen and sophomores went in the afternoon—but I hung out with her younger brother, so none of that mattered. I still saw her often, and I think it was clear to anyone watching, as I now look back, that I was crazy about her. And she knew it too! Halfway through my freshman year I told her that when I got my driver’s license, I would take her out for dinner and a movie. Her reply was simple. She said, “That sounds like fun.” Little did I know that I would never muster the courage to follow through with my promise. Even though I knew she would go out with me, when I got my license I simply couldn’t gather the nerve to actually ask her out. Fear dictated that I mustn’t follow through on this promise. It was only the beginning of the many opportunities I would miss in my life thanks to having this selfish, manipulative, controlling entity running the show.
While in high school there was another girl—a girl I graduated with—who grabbed my attention. She was homecoming queen, prom queen, and, of course, one of the most popular girls in school. I idolized her from afar; to approach her would have been too much.
To this day, I occasionally wonder what life might have been like if I had acted on either one of these desires. For many years—all through my drinking days, as I remember them—I relived these dreams with regret and remorse. Today I find a fondness has replaced the regret in these daydreams. I no longer wish I had done things differently. I simply enjoy the feeling of love I had for those two women as I let the daydream of what life might have been like play across my mind. While I reminisce, I wish them all the best. Of course, I have come a long way from those fear-filled days of yesteryear, but those were the days when my drinking and drugging began.
For the longest time, drinking gave me a sense of courage. It was never enough to do the things I really wanted to do—like ask one of those girls out on a date—but it was usually enough to get me to do other things or ask out other girls, ones who didn’t intimidate me quite as much. Alcohol and drugs are like that: they provide courage while at the same time tilting the brain into thinking things through in a far-from-rational manner. This often leads to doing silly, crazy, or just plain stupid things. I believe it is just this kind of thing that led to the joke that goes something like this: “What are an alcoholic’s famous last words? ‘Hold my beer and watch this.’”
I am relatively certain that fear made it impossible for me to feel normal or to feel like I fit in with the rest of the kids my age. I know fear played a role in keeping me from doing many things I wanted to do. I also believe it kept me from making friends I wanted to make—I had a very small number of friends growing up—and I did attempting to do some of the things I would have liked to do. I did try out for sports, but I didn’t do well thanks to my lack of ability in certain sports. Some of my coaches detested me due to the erratic behavior caused by my drinking and drugging.
I was told in sixth grade that I should make a career of singing, but I didn’t pursue it, or any of the other performing arts, thanks to my fear of being labeled in a derogatory way. After all, I began taking ballet at the age of eleven, and others told me during the following years that I should make a career of that, too! That was enough ammunition for those who knew about my dancing, without me adding to the mix. Fear convinced me to avoid this field of endeavor.
Fear changed the way I felt about myself as well as how I felt about the people around me. I had it in my fearful mind that teachers were out to cause me trouble when they were really trying to help me learn. Any authority figure was cause for alarm: police, teachers, doctors, and adults in general drove my fear to great heights. Although I see now how irrational my fear was, it caused me great pain while I was growing up, and continued into my adult life. In fact, when I finally got into recovery I discovered that I had to find a way to deal with it. Running was no longer an option if I wanted to live a full and normal life.
Fear drove the choices I made, and those choices led to consequences. Since I made most of my choices based on fear, most of my consequences were of a negative nature. I even came to believe that consequences were always a negative thing, as in “If you do that you will suffer the consequences.” I thought that I always had to suffer through consequences. My thinking has changed in this area thanks to what I have learned in recovery, but for most of my life I did my best to lessen the impact of consequences rather than simply do things that would bring positive consequences into my life.
A More Positive Look at Fear
Fear is part of life. In fact, life might be boring without it. However, fear can also disrupt my life in many ways. I can let it stop me from doing things I want to do, make me do things I don’t want to do, and generally wreak havoc in my day-to-day life. Fear can also cost me friendships through my not pursuing them or by causing me or the other person to end the relationship. Yes, fear can be an enemy, an often inevitable and invisible enemy.
I think anyone would agree that fear is a part of life and that it isn’t going to leave us anytime soon—probably never, and “never is a long time,” as my dad likes to say. If fear isn’t going to go away, the question becomes “How can I live with the fear that slithers through me from day to day?” The best answer, as usual, is simple. It is simple to say, yet difficult to do—at least at first—although it does get easier with practice. The answer is to deal with it head-on.
Like anything else, fear isn’t something that can be dealt with without some effort. Just as we have to learn to deal with new challenges, we can learn to deal with fear in either positive or negative ways, ways that either help or harm us. If we choose to deal with the fear instead of just reacting to it, we can learn to use it. If we choose to take positive action when fear shows its ugly head instead of hiding from it, we can make genuine progress. The key to dealing with fear in a positive manner is first to recognize it for what it is. I must understand that I am feeling fear, rather than simply let my emotions drive me. If I don’t acknowledge the fear, I may never get a grip on the matter.
In Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inaugural address, given on March 4, 1933, he mentioned fear. Most people are familiar with the quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” However, that is only a portion of a sentence, which is only part of his speech. One might argue that it is taken out of context. I won’t argue that point here. I would like to look at the entire sentence, though. Here it is: “So first of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Now that says something. Not that the shorter quote doesn’t; it does, just not as much. I have done some thinking on the shorter version of the quote and have brought meaning from it into my life, because, when it comes to fear, I think I should be afraid of letting it run my life. I’ve spent far too much of my life living in fear―letting my anxieties dictate what I could or couldn’t do, what I should or shouldn’t do, whom I should befriend and whom I should avoid, or at least not befriend, what kind of job I should have. I’ve stayed in a job I didn’t like because fear told me I’d never find another one, let alone a better one. For many years I didn’t look to see if there might be a better job, because fear told me I had to quit one job before I could look for another one, and I believed that conniving, life-wrecking fear. Looking back, I think I chose to believe that particular fear because it seemed easier than not believing it. It seemed easier to stay in a rut than to take a critical look at why I was staying in the rut.
When I finally began looking at fear instead of just retreating from it, I began to see just how much I let fear run my life. I had to allow fear to take the lead. It couldn’t do so without my consent. While most of the time I didn’t consciously give my consent, I didn’t exactly protest its control, either; I simply reacted to life, and to fear. When I did protest, I usually did so while “the committee” discussed it in my mind, instead of my discussing it with a trusted friend. A friend might be able to shed some light on the matter, which could help me see things as they really are instead of through the unfocused and blurred lens of fear. Fear likes to keep me in the dark recesses of my own mind where I can’t see my options; however, when fear is exposed to the spotlight of truth, it usually begins to fade, shrink, or disappear altogether. The truth about fear is that it’s just as afraid of me as I am of it, but we’ll discuss that a little bit later.
It’s time now to take a look at the second half of the quote from FDR: “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” To me, that is a wonderful definition of what fear really is. FDR’s understanding of fear is not what the dictionary says exactly, but it captures the meaning of fear for me today. Another way to look at it is to define it in this way: “fear: [a] nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” If that doesn’t describe fear, I don’t know what does. Fear is often nameless, and nearly always unreasoning. It’s usually unjustified, though I like to justify it because it seems like fear can provide me with an easy way out. Fear can quickly paralyze my efforts to convert retreat or hiding into advance or taking necessary action, whether I justify it or not. The question then becomes “How do I deal with this menace?” The answer, again, is simple, but not so easy.
I must face my fears head-on.
I used to believe that overcoming fear meant that I was supposed to be fearless, that I was supposed to find a way not to feel afraid. This is just plain wrong. “Don’t be afraid” is misguided advice. It can’t be done. If I wait until I stop feeling fear, I’ll never do anything. I’ve found that I can’t make fear leave by thinking or wishing it away—no matter how hard I try. To rid myself of fear I must walk through it, repeatedly walk through it. I don’t remember ever being told this directly. Instead, I learned it by doing. My sponsor repeatedly pushed me through “walls of fear” until I concluded that fear is overcome not through willpower or wishing it away, but through courageous action.
Courageous action is something I’ve also had to redefine, because my definition of courage used to be “the absence of fear.” I thought that in order to be courageous, I had to rid myself of fear. My experience and subsequent research have led me to a new understanding of what courage is and what it is not. Courage is not the absence of fear, because courageous people are afraid too!
Courage is taking action—doing the right thing, or the thing I want or need to do—even though I’m afraid to do so. Courage is staring fear in the face and moving forward, toward it, not away from it. Courage is walking through that wall of fear.
I’ve seen fear as a “wall” because a wall will stop, or at least slow, my progress toward a goal. And fear operates like that wall. Whatever the goal, it is insignificant as far as fear is concerned. Fear’s objective is to stop progress—to turn advance into retreat. The way it accomplishes this is by convincing me, through intimidation, threat, or coercion that I will fail to make the desired progress, and that I will make a fool of myself in some way. Because of this, I must seek out and get to know my fears. I must consciously decide to do things of which I am afraid. I must do this on a consistent basis. I must not allow success or failure to be too large a part of the equation, because if I attempt to do something I am afraid of, I usually succeed. Even if I do not attain the results I desire, the attempt is a success because I faced my fear. The truth is that the outcome is often not my decision anyway. I am required only to make the attempt and to do my best, and then let God take care of the results. I am in the action business and God is in the results business. If the outcome is not to my liking, I can try again. I must remember that failure is a teacher; failure is a beginning; failure is not the end. I am not a failure if God provides a result that is not of my choosing. That is His business, His job, and listening to my fear is one way of telling God what I think the results—His results—should be. I am not God, but I sometimes need a gentle reminder of that. One of the easiest ways I have found to face my fear is to take a good, hard look at what I really fear. Some may say, “That sounds simple,” but it really is more complicated than that, because fear is an insidious force. Fear wants me to think I am afraid of something large, something that I cannot overcome. The truth is that fear is smaller than it appears. Fear somehow has the ability to appear much larger than it really is.
I had a friend who was thinking of moving to South Carolina. Most of her family lived there and she wanted to be closer to them. However, she was afraid to make the move. She began telling me about her fears. She is legally blind, and for her, just getting around can be a challenge. She was used to her present, familiar surroundings, and was afraid that she might not be able to find a living situation where transportation would be as accessible as it was where she lived. She had a good job and was afraid she might not be able to find one to replace it. She was afraid of the actual move; she was afraid of how she would get everything packed and moved to South Carolina. Her list went on. If you use your imagination just a little, I am sure you can come up with a few fears you might have of moving five states away.
I suggested to her that she write her fears on a piece of paper. I suggested she put her fears in a tangible form she could evaluate objectively. I had never done this myself; in fact, the idea had never occurred to me, but it sounded like a good idea. I felt certain the idea had come from God, since it didn’t come from me, only through me, and I had never tried it myself; yet it sounded sensible. I told her I had never tried this myself, but that I thought it might just help her to see her fear for what it really was. She took this advice and wrote down all the things she was afraid of about her upcoming move. Six months later, she was living in South Carolina.
A few months after she successfully faced her fears and moved to South Carolina, I had the opportunity to put this method of facing fears to good use. A wonderful opportunity to organize a hotline in my town emerged. Yet I was paralyzed by the fear. I had run my mouth—as I sometimes do—about how we should provide a twenty-four-hour hotline manned by volunteers who were in recovery instead of paying a professional answering service whose employees had no experience in recovery. I suddenly had the job of making it happen. My first thought was that I had opened my mouth and inserted my foot. Then, when the fear set in ferociously and I wanted to back out, I remembered the suggestion I had given my friend regarding her fear about moving. I made a list of my fears.
I was afraid people would not sign up to do the work, or that the whole thing would be a flop; I would fail miserably, or people would sign up and then not show up to work their shift.
I wouldn’t have enough bright ideas to get the hotline going, and I wouldn’t get the help I needed.
I wrote down these fears and more. Then I took a good, hard look at them. The fears really boiled down to two types: fear of what other people might think of me (especially if I failed), and fear of not being in control. If I failed, I feared people would judge me negatively.
Since I could not control the situation—it was beyond my ability—I had fears about all the things I could not control.
Seeing my fears for what they were, I did what I could do. For the most part that consisted of making a schedule, printing some flyers, and asking for help getting the word out that we needed volunteers. Then I started working phone shifts—pretty much all the shifts that were not covered by volunteers. Oh, and I prayed. I prayed for help and I prayed for courage.
Well, things worked out. We now have our phones manned twenty-four hours a day by people in recovery. I was able to face the fear by writing it down and taking a good look at what it was that I really feared. When I did that, my fears looked small, even silly, and as I look back on my part in the whole thing, I see that what I did was one person’s part. I did what I could. The key to success in this case was that eighty-plus other people did what they could too; they continue to do what they can to make the hotline the success it is today. I left my role as chairperson some time ago, and others have taken over the chairperson’s position. They have added new ideas, which have made things even better. However, the volunteers make the whole thing happen. They do the real work. I was happy to do my part, despite my fears, to get the ball rolling. Probably the greatest lesson I learned from the entire experience is the value of writing down my fears. Once I wrote them down, I could see them for their silliness. I continue this practice today, and I plan to do so for the rest of my days. When I find my fears holding me back, I write them down. Then I look at them until I see them for what they really are. Once I see the truth, my fear begins to dissolve and I am able to summon the courage to do my part. I am also willing to let other people do their part.
Today I see fear as an overinflated bully who needs only a good, hard look to be seen for who he really is. When I take the time to see through my fears—to see them for what they really are—I find it is not too difficult to summon the courage necessary to walk through the walls they represent. The more often I do the exercise, the easier it gets to repeat the process. As I practice overcoming fear, accomplishing the task gets a little bit easier. When I stop feeding fear, it begins to die a slow death. While it will most likely never die completely, it does weaken as I feed my courage and become even stronger.
There are so many things to fear. It is no wonder fears multiply when I keep them bottled up in my head. The same fear can manifest itself in many ways: failure, success, not knowing how to do something, getting hurt, hurting someone else; the list is nearly endless. Yet I’ve been able to boil all my anxieties down to five root causes by taking a serious, critical look at them. My personal fears are these five:
• Fear of failing
• Fear of what other people will think of me
• Fear of losing control
• Fear of not getting something I want
• Fear of losing something I have
With work, I can boil them down to just the last two―fear of not getting what I want and fear of losing something I have. Fear of failing includes my fear of success. While that may sound odd on the surface, it is true, because if I succeed at something I’ll be expected to follow that up with more success—even if I am the only one to have this unreasonable expectation. When I do something and succeed, or have what I consider a successful outcome, I automatically reset my expectations to this new level. While this isn’t always true, I’ve found it to be true often enough to make it my rule. For example, if I’m asked to give a speech on a subject I’m familiar with, though I do not consider myself much of a public speaker, I can still walk through the fear and give the speech because I’m familiar with the subject matter. Once I’ve given the speech, I will have a new level of expectation for myself when it comes to public speaking: I will expect that I can do it again next time. However, if I’m asked to speak again, the subject matter may be something I’m not familiar with. What will I do then? This is fear of failure mixed with fear of what other people will think of me—and I haven’t even been asked to do the second speech yet. This fear can affect my first speech, since my mind will likely preoccupy itself with what others may think at some time before I give the speech, and this fear of what other people will think of me can paralyze me. Yet I don’t even have an idea what those people really think.
In the end, I’m the one doing the thinking. When it comes to thinking, it’s important for me to remember that I’m the only one doing my thinking. This is the main reason my sponsor told me, “It’s none of your business what other people think of you.”
I’ll never be able to please everyone, so I need to stop worrying about it. There is a great sense of freedom in knowing that.
The sense of freedom I gain lets me see that it isn’t what other people think about me, it’s what I think they think of me that has the power to hurt me. After all, most people don’t come up and tell me what they think of me, especially if it is negative. Nearly all the negative things people think of me are not my reality, but exist only in my own vivid imagination. I make these thoughts and fears up as I go along. And I make up other fears that accompany the original fears I imagined. Then, I project these fears on to the other person or people, even though there is a strong possibility these people weren’t thinking of me at all. It is only logical. Many people practice “projection,” or the attribution of their own thoughts, feelings, and conclusions to others.
To prove my point, let’s look at an example of what other people thought of me, or so I thought, when I took on the job of establishing a volunteer helpline. The only people who ever told me what they thought of what I did with the helpline were the people who thought I did something positive. While there were probably people who thought I did it for a selfish or some other negative reason, they never told me their thoughts on the subject. Truth be told, most people—even the ones who knew I was behind the revamping of the system (and there weren’t that many of them to begin with)—probably never gave it much thought at all. If they did, they kept their thoughts to themselves, because I never heard about it.
Therefore, if I thought they harbored ill-feeling toward me, it was my own thoughts I was battling, not theirs. If I look at this situation under the spotlight of reason, as opposed to in the darkness of my irrationality, I will see it for what it is. When I say, “I think Sam doesn’t like me,” all I have to do is stop after the first two words in the sentence to know who is doing the thinking. I am. “I think Sam doesn’t like me.” Sam hasn’t made a comment regarding the matter, but I have assigned him the role of not liking me because it fits into my fearful way of thinking.
Even if I happen to be right, and Sam doesn’t like me, what should that matter? Sam is one person. I know I can’t please everyone, so Sam now falls into the category of people I couldn’t or didn’t please this time around. Maybe Sam has a good reason for not liking me, but that shouldn’t matter since Sam’s reasons are just that―his reasons. If Sam doesn’t like the idea that I revamped the helpline, maybe it is because he secretly wishes he had done so himself. The reason shouldn’t matter, and I need to get to where it doesn’t matter to me.
If Sam doesn’t like it, that is his problem, not mine! If at some point Sam makes it known to me that he doesn’t like what I did, I need to let him own his problem. Even though fear tells me I need to fix it, I don’t need to take on Sam’s problem or problems. Yet I’ve been known to do just that. If I have a problem with the way people treat me or the things they tell me, I sometimes allow fear to tell me that I need to fix the problem even though it may be outside my control to do so. Somewhere in the mess, I take my problem of wanting them to like me and twist it in such a way so that I think it is the other person’s responsibility to fix it, when it is still my problem. My problem is still with Sam. I want Sam to like me, even though he probably won’t. I can’t change Sam. I can only change myself and how I allow my perceptions to affect me.
I change the way I perceive things by changing the way I talk to myself.
Have you ever said something like “I have a problem with Sam,” either out-loud or to yourself? I’ll bet you have. I know I have. When I say something like that, my tendency is to think that Sam is the one with the problem or that Sam is the one who needs to change. However, if I look at what I’m saying, I’ll see the truth. “I have a problem with Sam” really means that I’m the one with the problem.
If I reverse this perception, which is what I need to do if Sam has a problem with me, I find that Sam is the one with the problem.
You can look at this in two ways: “Sam has a problem with me,” or “I think Sam doesn’t like me.” The first way of looking at the situation is that the problem is Sam’s, not mine. The second way of looking at the situation is that I think Sam doesn’t like me. I may be wrong, but even if I am right, it’s still Sam’s problem. There may or may not be something I can do to help Sam; however, unless he comes to me with this problem, there is very little I can do to be of assistance.
Yet fear tells me I need to fix something that I can’t fix. In some cases, where I am aware of the issue, I may choose to change for Sam’s benefit. In other cases I may choose not to. Either way, it’s still up to Sam to handle his end of the bargain, just as it’s up to me to handle my end when I have a problem with Sam. The point is that I need to take care of me and let Sam take care of Sam, and I need to let go of the fear around the issue; I can’t be everybody’s friend anyway.
By taking a careful look at how I think about things, I can change my level of fear right off the bat. I can usually downgrade my fear by changing the way I see things or by asking a couple of discerning questions of myself, such as: “Is this something real, or is it something I think is real?” or “Is this really my problem, my issue, or should I let the other person own it?” By taking ownership of what’s mine and allowing other people to do the same, I can overcome a lot of my fears before they get a chance to overwhelm me. I can begin to look at things more clearly and learn to identify what I need to change about myself.
As I’ve learned to apply this practice of assigning ownership, I’ve found that my self-esteem has grown. I no longer worry so much about what other people think of me because most of it isn’t real anyway; it’s only what I think they think. On the other hand, if someone wants to tell me what they think of me and I consider it to be negative, then I can accept it without taking it personally. I can allow them to have their opinion, and I can have mine. Sometimes, because I have learned to remain calm about their opinion of me, we can have a conversation and reveal our disagreements. Then we can make a more informed choice about how important it is to maintain the relationship. I can do so without all the anxiety I used to have regarding things like this. In order to do so, though, I need to make conscious decisions. I can’t just react to life, or to fear; I have to think about what’s going on in my own head. In working through this process I have come to see life as a series of individual choices and consequences, and this has helped me to deal with my fear as well. I used to be afraid to conquer my fear because I thought I would lose the excuses I had for all my future mistakes. After all, if I am afraid to do something, I have an excuse not to try it; if I do try it, I have an excuse for failing. I can blame failure on my fear, even if I only do this in the privacy of my own head. I’ve come to see this way of thinking as reactionary living, and I choose to live a proactive life now. Reaction results in distraction. I want a life where I take action based upon my own thoughts and ideas of how things should be. Since I changed the way I look at how life works, I’ve changed how I see fear.
When I began making my change from reactive to proactive living—from letting life happen to me to making my life happen—I began to see a shift in my thinking. I began to see my life as a series of choices and consequences. I make choices, and those choices bring me consequences. This is true whether I’m living reactively or proactively, since even if I choose not to choose (if I choose to let life happen to me), I have still made a choice. This choice, whatever it is or was, will bring me consequences. Usually, such consequences will be of the sort I see as bad or undesirable, because I didn’t take any action in the matter. This is fertile ground for fear.
I made the choice to revamp the helpline. The consequences of that choice were mostly positive. There is now an all-volunteer staff with experience in recovery answering the phones. When people call in for help, they get someone trained to help instead of a paid answering service whose employees have no idea what the organization does to help people. There are now nearly one hundred volunteers answering the phones, and their doing so provides them the opportunity to be of service to their community and to be allowed a chance to feel good about themselves for “doing their part” in the process.
The truth is that I have a hard time finding any negative consequences regarding my choice to revamp the helpline. If I stretch my imagination to find a negative consequence, it might be that I had to work many shifts until the volunteers began to trickle in; but even that was a good thing because the way I see it, I received the chance to meet new people, make new friends, and help others in the process.
If I had failed in this mission, things would have remained the same for the most part, as the helpline would have continued to employ the paid answering service. Yet, if I looked hard enough, I could have found some positive consequences in my failure. I would have learned what not to do when setting up a helpline, and I could have tried again, using my new knowledge as a guide. Even bad or undesirable consequences can be good. Therefore, I no longer fear consequences. I see them as a direct result of my choices, and probably the most amazing thing I’ve learned about this process is that consequences lead to more choices. Some say that success begets success and, thankfully, failures eventually beget success, although it may not seem like it at the time.
Success resembles a closed loop, or a merry-go-round. I make a choice, there are consequences, and consequences provide more choices. Since fear likes to ride on this merry-go-round, it too is part of the process. It rides along patiently and tells me I need to worry about the next set of consequences I will encounter.
Sometimes I make good choices, and sometimes bad, yet I can easily assign “good” and “bad” labels based on what I think is desirable or undesirable. Sometimes I don’t really know if I made a good choice until I see the consequences of that choice. Then I attach my labels. As long as I made the choice and did my best to do things right, I can’t find fault in myself for trying—or at least I shouldn’t. After all, at the very least I’ve created a learning opportunity. Failure is an opportunity to learn.
If I make a choice and follow it through to its logical conclusion, I will discover my consequences, which I will certainly label as either good or bad, success or failure. Today in my world, both labels are good, but it wasn’t always that way. With success, I am happy because things went according to plan; people are happy. With failure, I may be humiliated, even ridiculed, but I’ll have another opportunity to learn, and learning is what makes life worth living. This is why I need to make my decisions very consciously and conscientiously, paying strict attention to how and why I’ve come to the decision. After all, my decisions, and the actions I take on them, will determine my consequences.
I don’t see myself (or anyone else) getting off the merry-go-round of choices and consequences anytime soon, so I’ve come to believe it’s important to participate in my choices—to choose to choose. Then I do my best to learn from the consequences that follow, be they positive or negative, good or bad, success or failure. I do my best not to let fear of those potential consequences stop me from doing what I need to do.
Realizing That Fear Really Only Takes Two Forms
The best way I know to overcome fear is by experience. When I face something frightening, I must face it head-on and walk through the fear, doing the next right thing the best I can. When I do this, fear shrinks. When I shrink away from fear, it grows in every corner of my life. Only fear or courage can dominate. Only one can take the lead, so my choice is simple: I can feed my fear or I can feed my courage. It’s like the old story about the two dogs, one scary and the other rather likable. A version goes like this:
A man said, “Inside me there are two dogs. One dog is evil and the other is good. They fight all the time.” When asked which dog wins, he reflects for a moment and replies, “The one I feed the most.”
I see fear and courage in the same way. The one that wins is the one I feed the most. If I feed the fear, fear wins, and I end up angry or depressed because anger is fear projected and depression is fear internalized.
I came to this conclusion after taking yet another look at how fear works in my life. This time I came to see only two sources of fear. Either I am afraid I will lose something I want to keep, or I’m scared I won’t get something I want. When I looked at fear in this way, I was able to see just how small fear really is—and how selfish I can be when I act in fear. It’s pretty selfish to fear not getting something, no matter how badly I may want it, and it’s rather petty to fear losing something I already have. Sure, there are some justifiable fears. For example, I worry about someone breaking into my house and stealing my stuff. I also have great concerns about keeping my job so I can maintain my current lifestyle. But if I look at these things rationally, I come to see that burglars have rarely stolen from me, and the things they have stolen have been replaced. I also see that while I have lost jobs in the past, I’ve always managed to find another one. I’m not usually dealing with material things when it comes to getting what I want or losing something I have. Most of the time I fear losing face or not being recognized, and these are irrational fears. They are fears of what other people might think of me.
Because fear likes to look all dressed up and complicated, it can be difficult to see a particular instance of fear as fitting into either the “what am I afraid of losing,” or “what am I afraid I won’t get,” categories, but if I look hard enough, I can usually do it. Often it takes time to figure out what I will lose or not gain in a given situation. This is particularly true when the thing to be lost or not gained is emotional or spiritual rather than material. It is simply hard to measure or calculate. At these times I need to rely on faith—I need to trust the process, knowing fear will be a part of it—and just do the next right thing. It may not be until I look back that I can see what I stood to gain or lose. Only then can I know what I have discovered about myself. What have I given up because of the action? If I lose something, the thing I feared losing is just what I needed to get rid of in order to move on with my life.
As I began to see fear as losing something I want to keep or not getting something I want, I began to see fear like a ghost. I’m a fan of ghost stories, and in ghost stories the ghost itself can’t harm anyone without his or her help. A ghost can’t cause physical harm; it can only scare someone into doing something where the action taken causes the harm. In ghost stories, the ghost usually scares the person into doing something like jumping out of a window. The ghost didn’t do anything to cause the person physical harm. It only raised enough fear to cause the person to harm himself.
When I address fear in this manner, I can see it for what it is. It’s just a big boogeyman that likes to make me do things I wouldn’t do if the fear wasn’t there to influence me. In order to overcome my fear, I must look the ghost in the eye and say, “You aren’t going to influence my decisions. I know what I need to do, and I intend to do it. You might as well go bother someone else.”
The more I do this, the more I feed my courage, and the more I feed my courage, the more it grows. By my walking through my fear, less energy is available for the fear in my life. My fear will eventually starve. When fear discovers there is nothing for it to gain at my house, it will move on and search out other sources of energy.
Fear has limitations. When I calmly and rationally identify these limitations, I not only see fear for what it really is, I can learn to overcome it. This isn’t to say that fear will leave me completely, or forever. I’m not so naive as to believe that, but I have learned that I can reduce fear to a point where nearly all the fear I have is constructive. This is where fear becomes a tool I can use.
Fear Is Just Part of the Process
Constructive fear is the fear that sets butterflies free in my stomach before I give a speech or puts me on the edge of my seat before a job interview. These kinds of fear help me perform by pushing me to do my best. They are still fears that fall into the above-mentioned categories, fear of failure and fear of not getting something I want. Yet I can use them to my advantage. It takes patience and practice to make it work for me, but I have found it to be a wonderful use of fear. I know it’s part of the process of giving a speech or interviewing for a job, so I can put it to good use.
When I say fear is just part of the process, I don’t mean to minimize it by using the word just. My intention is to put fear in its place. When used properly, fear is a tool. And everything is a process. Life is a process—we are born, we live, we die. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but it contains a grain of truth. We have no control over being born, and we have little or no control over when and how we die, unless it’s by suicide. We do have some control over how we live, and life itself is nothing more than a series of processes, choices, and consequences.
I owe this lesson to one of my first writing professors. She told me that I needed to learn to enjoy the process of writing. I have. While learning to write, which is a much larger process than I ever could have imagined, I learned that every action, every step, can be broken down into smaller processes. There are steps taken to accomplish any task. If I follow the steps laid out on the cake mix box, I’ll end up with a cake. If I want to become an electrician, there is a process I must go through. Everything in life is like this. It’s only a matter of finding, then following, the correct process in order to reach a specific goal. Fear is part of nearly every process, yet when I learn to see fear for what it is, I can overcome it and reach my goal. Most processes can be broken down into even smaller processes, which is a great way to manage things that only seem overwhelming when looked at in a larger context. Since fear usually makes things look overwhelming, I break down each process into smaller processes. When I do, I break down fear too.
I remember going back to school at the age of forty-five and thinking how scared I was of what might or might not happen. My fear ran amok. I asked myself, “Will I be accepted? Can I handle the classes, or am I too old to learn? Will my grades be good enough? How will I pay for everything?” My fear-generated list was nearly endless, so I broke it down. First, I decided to enroll. Then I took one class. That went well enough, so the following semester I took two classes. Soon I was a full-time student carrying a 4.0 grade point average. Eventually, I graduated with honors. It was a process, daunting when I looked at it in one big chunk, yet manageable when I broke it into smaller pieces. I actually broke each semester into weeks, because I found that at the beginning of each semester when I got a syllabus for every class, the amount of work seemed overwhelming. Fear appeared like a ghost and told me I would never get it all done. As I broke things down into weeks, I saw that I could easily do what needed to be done a week at a time. I eventually broke things down into a daily schedule, which made my workload even more manageable. The fear, which started out looking like Frankenstein’s monster, began to look more like a simple household chore when I began breaking it down into smaller tasks. The work of going back to school finally became enjoyable as I integrated it into my daily routine. I made learning a process—a set of steps to follow in order to achieve a goal—and it worked out very well. Since then I have found that everything is a process. Everything can be broken down into manageable chunks. Learning to do even this was a process; it wasn’t easy, but it is possible.
It took patience and practice, but life is like that. What I practice today, I become better at tomorrow. My goal now is to make every day a practice session for the future. I practice learning so it will become habit. I practice overcoming fear for the same reason. Habits are easy to follow, and dealing with fear can become a habit if I practice it often and if I break it down into a process. It too can be done, and more easily than I ever imagined.
Here are the steps I take nowadays to deal with fear: first, I recognize the fear at a conscious level; I acknowledge it and even mentally shake hands with it. Then I look fear in the eye and tell it I will not let it govern my life, that I plan to do exactly what needs to be done to attain my goal. Then I break the task down into smaller and smaller pieces, breaking fear down as I go, until I discover that the task is not only doable, but also enjoyable. When I reach this point, I almost always find that fear has left the building or is cowering in the corner.
Then I remind myself that fear will return, and I will need to deal with it again, because fear is like that—it’s just part of the process.
I have come to believe that fear only exists to be conquered. Sure, I know the fight-or-flight response to fear, the gut reaction to that nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right, that something is terribly wrong, or that I’m in a dangerous situation. By conquering fear I mean not simply taking the gut feeling and running with it. What I mean is taking the time to stand up to fear and thinking it through before I act. Often this means stopping and taking time to think, feel, and get to know myself in order to recognize that I am afraid. Then I take time to stop again to give myself an opportunity to think before I act.
Sometimes it is prudent to run. If my life is in immediate danger, running is the most likely option. Since that is rarely the case, I have found that more often it is better to stand and face my fears, to think things through, and then do what I decide is the right thing to do, no matter what fear tells me I should do. It may be the more difficult thing to do, but it gets easier every time I do it. Practice makes progress.
I have a fear of heights. My sister asked me if I wanted to go skydiving. My first reaction was “Are you crazy?” But after I thought about it, I went. We did a tandem jump where I was securely attached to a skilled skydiver, who had made thousands of jumps and wore a parachute attached to his back. It was hard to jump from an airplane 13,000 feet in the air, but I did it. And you know what? I still have my fear of heights. When I stand at the edge of a ten-story building, my gut still jumps into my throat. It doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. One skydiving attempt did not remove my fear of heights. It only shrank it a little.
I am sure it would subside with more work, but I have made a choice. I have decided, at least for the time being, that I will not be doing more work on this particular fear. Jumping out of airplanes isn’t something I care to do again anytime soon. But I’m not ruling it out, either. My sister loves it. She even got my mother to jump—it was my sister’s second jump—and she asked me to go again. I declined. But I didn’t decline due to fear. I declined because I had something else I wanted to spend my money on at the time.
The next time my sister asks me, I may just go. I know it would be fun. It was fun the first time I jumped, and I know it will help me deal with my fear of heights. In the meantime, I’ll keep working on things a bit closer to the ground.